The Energy Collective Group

This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

9,844 Members

Article Post

Nuclear Firms see Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel as a Money Making Proposition


Spent Fuel Canister – Image courtesy of World Nuclear Association

For years spent nuclear fuel has been pilloried as a “waste” on the assumption that once it has been used, it is done, once and forever. The only thing left to do is to find someplace safe to dispose of it. That “place” was going to be Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

But US Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) made a deal in 2008 with then candidate Barack Obama. In return for delivering Nevada’s votes for Obama’s race to the white house, once in office, now President Obama would not pursue an license to open the site.

Obama kept his promise unceremoniously booting out then NRC Chairman Dale Klein, an experienced and apolitical technocrat, and installing Gregory Jaczko, a political aide to Senator Reid who had no nuclear industry experience.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy paid out tens of millions in penalties to US nuclear utilities for not taking the spent fuel off their hands which was promised to them on the assumption that Yucca Mountain would be complete.  So, all that spent fuel, some 70,000 tonnes of it, is still sitting at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors waiting for a new home.

Two interim spent fuel sites, no waiting

Two nuclear industry firms have strong ideas about making money by creating interim storage sites in the remote desert southwest. Both sites are sparsely populated, bone dry, and seismically stable. Local support is strong for both sites, which are within spitting distance of each other, more or less being 54 miles apart.

One proposal, by Holtec, which manufactures the dry casks used to store spent nuclear fuel, has the goal of creating consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) at a 1,000 acre site located between Hobbs and Carsbad, NM. (Holtec briefing)

The other proposal, by French nuclear energy giant Areva, in partnership with NAC International, are seeking to develop a CISF in Andrews, TX, as part of a 14,000 acre LLW disposal site operated by Waste Control Specialists (WCS). The firm is also a participant in the second proposal. (Areva briefing)

Licenses to be sought from the NRC

Both firms have sent “Part 72” letters of intent to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to seek to comply with the licensing requirements for independent storage of used nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive waste, and reactor-related greater than Class C waste.  Both firms will schedule pre-application meetings with the NRC and plan to submit their license applications for a safety evaluation report (SER) in 2016. If all goes well, both firms say to their investors, licenses could be issued by 2019 with construction to begin thereafter.

The NRC does not choose one or the other applicant for a license. Both firms could get licenses and compete for business from the nation’s nuclear utilities. The competitive issue might arise if there turns out not to be enough investor interest for two facilities. That’s a fence splitter in terms of making a prediction since the lure of 70,000 tonnes of spent fuel being stored in a CSIF over a period of 50-100 years would produce a lot of very predictable revenue.

First customers – decommissioned sites

Reactor sites with spent fuel already in dry storage would be first in line, so to speak, for using either service. Early customers for either CISF could be the dozen or so sites where nuclear reactors have already been decommissioned such as Maine Yankee. More recently, four nuclear reactors are now entering the decommissioning phase of their life cycle. Two are in California, one is in Wisconsin, and one is in Vermont.  Transportation to either site would be by rail.

Storage at the sites could be for 50-100 years depending on several factors. These include whether a future president decides, after the retirement of Sen. Reid in 2016, to try to reopen Yucca mountain.

West Texas and eastern New Mexico is a hotbed of nuclear activities which may explain why yet another facility for the industry will do well there. 

On the New Mexico side in the southeast corner of the state is the home for Urenco’s 3 million SWU/year uranium enrichment plant, soon to be doubling in size. If investors can be persuaded to show up, a uranium deconversion plant is still planned for Hobbs, NM. Construction of the $125 million facility was put on hold in 2013. New Mexico is also home to two DOE national laboratories – Los Alamos and Sandia.

Also, the currently and indefinitely closed DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) may one day reopen to receive LLW and RH-TRU radioactive waste to be buried in its underground salt caverns.

On the Texas side, the state government has provided support by approval of regulatory agencies for the site to accept LLW from other states. The local governments in west Texas have unanimously approved resolutions of support.

Both consortiums in press releases promote their relative advantages. Both groups have expertise in manufacturing dry casks and in managing the process of moving spent fuel from wet to dry storage. Both groups are now seeking legislation from Congress that would streamline the process of licensing a CISF to be operated by private sector firms.

Another possibility, more remote, is that the DOE might finally officially acknowledge the energy potential locked up in the spent fuel and build a pilot spent fuel reprocessing facility. Unlike permanent disposal at Yucca Mountain, spent fuel in dry casks at a surface site can be retrieved for use in a reprocessing plant. Since DOE would retain title to the spent fuel stored at either site, the US government would have to be a party to a decision to develop a reprocessing plant, which is a major policy hurdle for now.

Meanwhile, Areva is in commercial negotiations to build a $15 billion full throttle spent fuel reprocessing plant for China.  Once built, and if successfully operated, the “inventory” for a similar facility in the US would be waiting for it on the harsh desert landscapes of west Texas and eastern New Mexico.

Content Discussion

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 9, 2015

Dan, “distributed generation” advocates maintain that somehow solar generation spread over millions of roofs, with millions of inverters and line connections, is somehow more efficient and reliable than combining all these functions at one central facility. Might “distributed spent fuel storage” be more efficient and safe than one Yucca Mountain facility?

But seriously. It’s tragically ironic that the nuclear industry is figuring out how to turn lemons into lemonade by monetizing storage, which would be largely unnecessary with a fleet of thorium breeders generating America’s electricity. In 2010 Jeff Bingaman, then-Senator and chairman of the Senate Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure Committee, had already identified thorium as a potential threat. His state of New Mexico is home to URENCO’s $2 billion uranium processing facility, which a thorium-powered America would reduce to the equivalent of a rather large paperweight in the desert.

Perhaps that’s why Bingaman let the Thorium Energy Security Act of 2010 die in committee. Co-author of that bill was none other than Harry Reid, who was aware that thorium MSRs recycling spent fuel could make Yucca Mountain unnecessary. Did Obama-supporter Bingaman negotiate a way with Reid – and Obama – to kill Yucca but keep URENCO? If so, both can take responsibility for making sure the new president’s nuclear priorities were exactly backward, with a huge factory churning out proliferation-friendly uranium and aging nuclear power plants turning it into toxics which must be stored forever.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on September 8, 2015


millions of inverters and line connections, “

I don’t know about you, but all the appliances in my home convert the AC off the grid to DC. Even the motor on my HVAC is variable speed DC. 

So, if solar and batteries became popular enough, could we envisage a time when all appliances had a DC input option? Solid state voltage regulators are simple and cheap. 

Then the problem is inverted; the local solar has no transmission loss and little or no regulator loss, but the AC grid has both transmission loss and conversion loss.

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on September 8, 2015


Another parallel option to these proposed storage facilities would be to reprocess the spent fuels.  This would not only generate additional fuels for future nuclear power plants, but also substantially reduce the volume and hazard levels of the current and growing on-site spent uranium fuels found at most plants across the U.S.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 8, 2015

 local solar has no transmission loss…”

Local generation may save the 7% transmission loss, but without a grid connect, it will suffer a loss of 70% or so due to curtailment.  Without the ability to share reserves with neighbors, homeowners must plan for their worst-case needs, rather than their average needs.  Additionally, residential solar has a cost about double that of utility-scale solar.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 8, 2015

Little or no regulator loss? Hops, solid state voltage regulators are inefficient – anywhere from 94% to as low as 60% at low voltages – compared to the 98-99% efficiency of A/C transformers.

Transformers gave A/C transmission a critical edge in the War of Currents:

Staring in the 1880s alternating current gained an additional advantage with the development of functional transformers that allowed the current to be “stepped up” to much higher transmission voltages and then dropped down to a lower end user voltage for business and residential use.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on September 9, 2015

You appear to be thinking of linear regulators.  Modern switching DC-DC converters can hit efficiencies in the mid-to-high 90% range.  Since they’re not passing all their energy through a magnetic system (inductors are only storage elements, not transmitting the full power flow) the losses there are reduced.

That said, DC converters have a lot more to go wrong than transformers, and I have every reason to expect that AC transmission will retain its primacy for a long time to come.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 9, 2015

EP, that sounds like the type of DC-DC converters electric car controllers use, which change the pulse width of a modulated DC input to control voltage.

Would it not be impractically expensive to incorporate those in each home appliance, like cellphone chargers, toasters etc.? And we’d still have a problem when a cloud moves in front of the sun and your bagel is half-toasted.

A standard DC mains voltage could be maintained, supplemented by rectified electricity from the grid, but there would be issues with fire, line losses, and electrocution (convicts in electric chairs survived more often when the same voltage was used with AC than DC).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 9, 2015

A concern for potential interim fuel storage sites highlighted in the BRC report was that they could turn into defacto permanent sites should the government continue to drag its feet on a permanent repository.

Forward thinking state and local governments which agree to host interim storage sites could turn this situation into a long term source of jobs and revenue, courtesy of the federal goverment.  The feds would seem to have a rather weak negotiating position; so there are many lucrative options that would be written into any siting agreement, for example:

  • storage casks must be replaced every 60 years using local labor and suppliers.
  • any waste leaving the facility must be repackaged in a locally made transport cask.
  • storage fees escalate over time, without bound, until the waste form has been “upgraded” for longterm storage, where upgrades means either:
    – reprocessed to remove >= 90% of the TRU which must be sent away, the remaining fission products vitrified and stored locally.
    – reprocessed, with the TRU burned repeatedly in a local fast reactor (e.g GE PRISM), with the stabilized waste stored locally.
    – reprocessed, with the TRU used for TRISO fuel and burned in a once-thru deep-burn HTGR (or related GA EM2, burning silicon-carbide clad fuel, in a fast spectrum) with the spent TRISO stored locally.

I can even imagine 10’s of GWatts of HVDC power lines radiating like spokes from the desert southwest, carrying not solar generated energy, but power from nuclear waste recycling plants.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on September 11, 2015


I thought this was interesting. Neutrino detectors can pick up nuclear fission reactions.

So, if Iran or any country built a reactor for the purpose of making plutonium, it appears they could be spotted no matter how they tried to hide it.


Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on September 11, 2015

Great if electric power can be salvaged from otherwise worse than useless waste.

Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on September 11, 2015

Somehow I got the impression a few years ago that HV-DC worked better than AC for distances of about 600 miles up, but AC was better for moderate distances and voltages.  Would it work to have an HV-DC grid covering most of the nation with 90% of population and/or electric consumption within 100 miles of an HV-DC transmission line, and both step down the voltage and invert from DC to AC coming off the HV-DC grid and stepping down the voltage again to maybe 120 volt AC house current within 5 to 10 miles of residential and commercial electric customers and serve big industrial customers with whatever sort of electric power would suit them best?

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on September 11, 2015

HV-DC worked better than AC for distances of about 600 miles up, but AC was better for moderate distances and voltages.

HVDC is cheaper (one conductor per circuit vs. 3, with commensurate savings in towers and insulators) over long distances and has lower losses and no phase-matching issues.  For that matter it is indifferent to the grid frequencies on each end, allowing connections between 50 Hz and 60 Hz grids seamlessly.  But my understanding it that it is hard to do branched connections, so it is pretty much for point-to-point only.

invert from DC to AC coming off the HV-DC grid and stepping down the voltage again to maybe 120 volt AC house current within 5 to 10 miles of residential and commercial electric customers

Are you at all familiar with the “pole pig” transformers up in the air, or their green metal ground-based equivalents in neighborhoods with buried electrical service?  Those produce your 120/240 volt power from much higher voltages (typically 7000 volts or more) and are spotted within a couple hundred FEET of the customer.  Edison himself couldn’t push 120 volts more than about a mile without unacceptable losses.

HVDC links can go up to the megavolt range.  The highest AC transmission voltages in use as of a while ago were on the order of 765 kV; they go down to 75 kV or thereabouts for the smaller lines.  Distribution around my area is about 13.2 kV 3φ (phase-to-phase voltage) or 7600 volts phase-to-ground.  The pole pig produces 240 volts from that, when squirrels haven’t gone on suicide missions to take out the line fuses.  Why squirrels are willing to die to kill a fuse, I’ll never know.